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NHL Power Rankings: Mid-season Stanley Cup contenders and pretenders

Now that we are officially into the second half of the 2017-18 NHL season we are going to start rolling out our PHT Power Rankings on a weekly basis instead of the bi-weekly basis we had been doing in the first half.

After looking at the top trade deadline candidates that could be available a week ago, this week we are going to take a look at the top Stanley Cup contenders … as well as the teams that are pretenders. Plus, the teams that need to just start looking ahead to next season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects and expected teams at the top of the list. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators are all there, and thanks to their recent surge over the past month or two, as are the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Also there: The Vegas Golden Knights, a team that just keeps getting better.

So let us get to it and take a look at where we have everybody sitting right now.

Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have the most talented roster in the league and seem to be in a position to make a significant move at the trade deadline. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

2. Vegas Golden Knights — They are getting stronger and better as the season progresses. They are becoming a dominant possession team, they are outshooting everybody they play every night, they have great offense, and a Stanley Cup winning goalie. This team is for real. They are a threat.

3. Boston Bruins — They have the best line in hockey and Tuukka Rask seems to be back to being an elite goaltender. They have been borderline unbeatable with him in the lineup.

4. Nashville Predators — They are finally fully healthy and finally the team that David Poile constructed. Where is the weakness? There does not seem to be one.

5. Washington Capitals — They are back on top of the Metropolitan Division even though some of their top players have been a little quiet offensively in recent weeks. When those guys get going again, watch out. The roster on paper may not be as impressive as the past two years, and they may not win the Presidents’ Trophy, but they are still good. Really good.

6. Winnipeg Jets — They have a couple of significant injuries right now with Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba on the shelf, but what a powerful offense. With the Jets a lot of it comes down to whether or not they can keep getting the same level of goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are back. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are taking over games, they are starting to figure out the lineup, and they are probably one move away from really putting a scary team on the ice.

8. St. Louis Blues — Like the Jets I feel like a lot of this story is going to be decided by goaltending. Jake Allen has been okay, Carter Hutton has been great but he’s hardly played. Good defensive team, couple of high-end offensive players and some solid depth especially now that Jaden Schwartz is back.

9.  Toronto Maple Leafs — They can score with anybody in the NHL but they still need to make a tweak or two to their defense.

Could Go Either Way

10. New Jersey Devils — I feel like this might be a little high, but it also feels right. This is a pretty good team, but maybe not quite a true contender yet.

11. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings are still the Kings. Dominant possession team, tough to score against, kind of a mediocre offense. I don’t think they are truly a “contender” at this point, but they are also still a team that could be dangerous. Or they could miss the playoffs entirely. It is a bizarre team.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They have really slid recently, but they still have a lot of talent. They really need Sergei Bobrovsky to solve his postseason demons though.

13. San Jose Sharks — I might have them a little bit higher if they still had Joe Thornton, but that is a huge blow at the moment and one that is going to be difficult to overcome. He is still the engine that drives them.

Pretenders

14. Dallas Stars — They’ve spent a ton of money on a team that is just … kind of good?

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Are the Flyers good? It really just depends on the day. Sometimes they look great. Sometimes they look awful. They have a pretty dominant top part of the lineup. The bottom of the lineup leaves a lot to be desired.

16. Minnesota Wild — A healthy Nino Neiderreiter and Zach Parise in the lineup together might make a difference, but it still feels like a pretty mediocre team overall.

17. Calgary Flames — They have been one of the bigger disappointments in the league this season. If you had told me at the start of the year Mike Smith would have a .922 save percentage I would have figured this would be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Mike Smith has that, but they are not even a lock to make the playoffs.

18. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries just keep devastating this team this season. Every time it feels like they are getting healthy, somebody else goes out of the lineup. John Gibson is currently banged up now.

19. New York Islanders —  That offense can be great, but it is almost impossible to see them winning much in the playoffs — assuming they even get there — with that goaltending situation. Is there anybody available at the trade deadline that could make that much of a difference?

20. New York Rangers — They are still very much in the playoff race but it seems pretty clear they are ready to start selling off pieces before the trade deadline.

21. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Nathan MacKinnon for a few weeks could be a season-altering (perhaps season crushing?) blow to a team that has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the NHL this season.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — Goaltending and a lack of finishing ability on offense failed them again.

See you Next Season

23. Chicago Blackhawks –– Yeah, I am giving up on them this season. Corey Crawford might come back at some point and that could help if he is healthy and able to keep playing like he was earlier this season, but as of Monday they are still six points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. That is a tough gap to make up this late in the season.

24. Florida Panthers — There is still a young core here you can win with. But do they have the right people in place to build around it?

25. Detroit Red Wings — Given the roster and the salary cap situation it is going to be a while before this team is a factor again.

26. Vancouver Canucks — Why are you trying to re-sign Erik Gudbranson? Is that really what you need to continue this rebuild?

27. Montreal Canadiens — Will they tear it down at the trade deadline or maintain the status quo of mediocrity?

28. Edmonton Oilers — How does a team with Connor McDavid on his entry level contract end up this bad? This team is simply one of the greatest coaching and front office failures in recent NHL history.

29. Ottawa Senators — There is just nothing to be excited about here. The team stinks, the best player will probably be gone within the next two years and the owner is a jerk that seems to hate his own fans.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Jack Eichel has been great and everything the Sabres could have hoped. The rest of the rebuild has been a spectacular failure.

31.  Arizona Coyotes — They are one of the youngest teams in the league that is still lacking talent in a lot of key areas. It is just an impossible situation for this season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flames still face cap challenges after Lucic-Neal trade

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The Calgary Flames faced a cap crunch with James Neal on the books, and they still face potential issues with Milan Lucic being traded in at $500K cheaper.

[More on the contract situations here, and Lucic vs. Neal on ice in this post.]

That’s a lot of money under most circumstances, but $500K goes fast in the modern NHL. In fact, $500K wouldn’t cover the minimum salary of a single player. Every dollar could end up counting for the Flames, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, but things could be tight nonetheless. It may even force someone other than Neal out of the fold.

While the Flames currently boast an estimated $9.973 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly, that money will dry up quickly. They still need to hammer out deals for RFAs Matthew Tkachuk, David Rittich, Sam Bennett, and Andrew Mangiapane.

Really, would it shock you if Tkachuk and Rittich came in at $10M combined? Such costs are real considerations for the Flames, assuming they can’t convince Tkachuk to take a Kevin Labanc-ian discount.

In Ryan Pike’s breakdown of the cap situation for Flames Nation, he found that Calgary may still have trouble fitting everyone under the cap by his estimations, even if the Flames bought out overpriced defenseman Michael Stone. Buying out Stone seems like a good starting point as we consider some of the calls Treliving might need to make before the Flames’ roster is solidified.

Buying out Stone in August: Stone, 29, has one year left on a deal that carries a $3.5M cap hit and matching salary. If the Flames bought him out, they’d save $2.33M in 2019-20, as Stone’s buyout would register a cap hit of about $1.167M in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

As frustrating as it would be for the Flames to combine dead money in a Stone buyout with Troy Brouwer‘s buyout (remaining $1.5M for the next three seasons), it might just be necessary. Really, it might be the easiest decision of all.

Granted, maybe someone like the Senators would take on Stone’s contract if the Flames bribed them with picks and/or prospects, much like the Hurricanes did in taking Patrick Marleau off of the Maple Leafs’ hands?

Either way, there’s a chance Stone won’t be making $3.5M with the Flames next season.

Trade Sam Bennett’s rights? With things getting really snug, and the forward unlikely to justify being the fourth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, maybe the Flames would be better off moving on by sending Bennett/his RFA rights to another team and filling that roster spot with a cheaper option?

If a team coughed up a decent pick and/or prospect for Bennett, assuming he needs a change of scenery, it could be a win for everyone. The Flames might not be comfortable about that yet with Bennett being 23, but it should at least be discussed.

Trade an expiring contract player? T.J. Brodie ($4.65M), Michael Frolik ($4.3M), and Travis Hamonic ($3.857M) all seem to be signed at reasonable prices, if not mild bargains. All three are only covered through 2019-20, however, making it reasonable to picture them as parts of various trade scenarios. In fact, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that the Flames were working on a potential deal involving Brodie and then-Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri, and Kadri admitted on “31 Thoughts” that he didn’t waive his clause to allow Calgary to trade for him.

***

Over the years, including this summer with LaBanc and Timo Meier signing sweet deals for the Sharks, sometimes RFAs take care off cap concerns for their teams. There are scenarios where such constraints actually help the given team land some discounts; it sure felt that way when the Bruins got a deal with Torey Krug back in 2016.

As of this writing, it seems like the Flames might face a tight squeeze in fitting under the cap.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How Flames, Oilers might handle Lucic, Neal after big trade

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In the additional breakdown of the Milan LucicJames Neal trade, you might conclude that it’s basically a one-for-one deal, conditional draft pick aside. You can get an idea of how the two players are in remarkably similar places in their careers by reading the original breakdown.

Even their contracts look virtually the same … at least at first.

The players are close enough that it’s far from a guarantee that the Oilers will need to hand that third-rounder to their rivals in Calgary.

It’s only once you start digging deeper that you realize that, beyond James Neal being closer to his best days than Lucic, his contract is also a lot easier to deal with, for the most part. Once you start considering those factors, you might once again be surprised that the Oilers convinced the Flames to accept Lucic’s contract.

This was a case of two teams trading problems, and while both players have a decent chance to rebound to at least some extent, the true winner of this trade might be the team that can continue to clean up their messes.

To sort through the especially messy Lucic contract, you have to pull back your sleeves and get in the weeds. So, fair warning: this might make your brain melt a bit, but if you’re interested in what might happen next, these factors are important.

No movement, indeed

Lucic’s contract is an albatross deal for reasons that extend beyond Lucic not being worth $6M (and still not worth $5.25M) per year.

For one thing, while Lucic waived his no-movement clause to make this trade happen, it sounds like Lucic will retain his NMC … for some reason.

Frankly, if this is a matter of the Flames simply being nice, then they may rue such kindness in the future.

Most directly, if Lucic’s NMC is restored, then he might kabosh a trade down the line. Beyond that, there’s a scenario where the Flames might have to protect Lucic in an expansion draft, rather than someone more valuable. It’s possible that Lucic will return the Flames’ gesture by waiving his NMC in that situation (kind of like Marc-Andre Fleury doing the Penguins a solid in the Vegas expansion draft), yet the threat of complications can make you queasy.

Even if it works out, it all seems pretty messy to me. The other potential escape routes are messy for Calgary, too.

Easier to sell the deal than to buy it out

It’s been mentioned that the bonus-heavy structure of Lucic’s contract makes his deal almost “buyout proof.”

That’s pretty much true, as buying out Lucic would bring out marginal savings for the Flames, even if you move the buyout to a later year than the most immediate chance after next season.

Realistically, the most reasonable way Calgary might wiggle out of some of the tougher years of Lucic’s contract would be to find a team like the Senators: a franchise in place where they value contracts that don’t cost as much as their cap hits indicate. For example: the Flames could pay Lucic’s $3M bonus before 2020-21, then trade him to Ottawa, who would be credited with his $5.25M cap hit, even though they’d only be on the hook for the remaining $1M in base salary. That scenario would be even more appealing to a cost-conscious team in the last year of Lucic’s contract, so check Cap Friendly if you’re curious about other possibilities.

Unfortunately for Calgary, even if they found a buyer, they’d seemingly need to get Lucic to play ball. The veteran winger might not be so thrilled to go to a rebuilding team.

Ultimately, the Flames are taking a significant gamble that this Lucic situation will work out better than sticking with Neal. If not, people will point to Treliving taking on Lucic much like, well, Peter Chiarelli also gambling on the big winger.

*gulp*

Neal’s cleaner situation

Puck Pedia notes some potential twists and turns, but overall, the Oilers didn’t just get a player in closer proximity to his best times of production; Neal’s contract is, mostly, a lot easier to deal with. Even if it’s bad, too.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a cap-strapped Oilers team could benefit from a buyout, including one as early as 2020:

Saving close to $4M for three seasons, even if it means tacking on almost $2M for the following two seasons, could easily make a lot of sense for the Oilers, if they determine that a Neal buyout is the right move.

In general, they have more control of the situation, as Neal’s contract lacks a no-movement or no-trade clause. That’s kind of tragic in a way, as Neal’s already bounced around the league like a pinball, but it’s nonetheless the case.

Granted, the one area where Lucic might be a more plausible trade clip is because there’s not really any smoke and mirrors with Neal’s contract. While Lucic’s bonus-soaked contract makes him difficult to buyout, his falling salary vs. cap hit appeals to certain rebuild scenarios. Neal, meanwhile, simply costs $5.75M each season.

Still, that lack of a no-movement clause reduces Edmonton’s odds of worst-case scenarios. For instance: the Oilers wouldn’t need to protect Neal in an expansion draft, which could open up moments of tragic comedy where Neal finds himself with a new team and an expansion franchise again.

Overall, a buyout seems most feasible, although there’s the outside chance that Neal rebounds to become a deadly sniper again alongside Connor McDavid and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

***

Every trade carries the tagline of “to be continued,” but this swap seems especially friendly to that caveat. Is the plan for the Flames, Oilers, or both of these teams to ultimately get rid of Neal and/or Lucic all along? If so, at what cost?

Maybe the play of Neal and Lucic will decide the “winner” of this trade, but most likely, it comes down to which team does the best job cleaning up the messes they’ve made.

Check out the original post for more on this trade, including a look at where Neal and Lucic are in their careers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.